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Two years ago, Phillip Engel and Mark Goff were optimistic that the end was near at hand for the massive renovation project they'd undertaken at 227 North St. in Healdsburg.

Back in October 2011, Engel was hoping that the magnificent wreck they bought in 2009 would finally be finished by Christmas, although he knew that might be optimistic. Two years later, the historic 1870s mansion is comfortably liveable but still a work in progress.

But at least by Halloween, thanks to a fresh new exterior paint job and a meticulous restoration of the covered porch and rotted siding, they will no longer be hearing from passers-by, "That's quite the project you've got going!"

What do you say after you've heard the same comment at least 100 times?

"You work so hard. We're three and a half years in and all people do is walk by and go, 'You've got quite a project here,'" Engel said with a sigh on a comfortably warm October day, perfect for housepainting.

Project doesn't begin to describe the effort of completely restoring, largely with their own hands, a three-story Italianate mansion that was so forlorn, it was visibly sagging on its foundation and the electrical wiring had been red-tagged since the 1950s.

Over time, the couple has become something of a roadside attraction in Healdsburg, with many neighbors and other town residents feeling personally invested in the house as it slowly comes back to life.

"Looking good!" a passing motorist calls out, stopping to lean toward an open passenger window to offer a thumbs-up.

Now they're hoping that several coats of fresh gray and white paint applied to the front of the house, a restored porch and a wall of white iceberg roses will make the house at least appear done from the street.

"We decided that if we just finished the front, all that would stop," Engel explained.

Not that the pair resents the attention. Since work began in 2009, they have been given to throwing impromptu porch parties for neighbors, starting with an open bottle of wine at the end of a long day of work.

But painting the exterior of a house that is more than 140 years old is more involved than it looks. To do it right, you need to devote hours and hours and hours to burning and sanding off the old lead paint and disposing of it properly, then filling in numerous cracks and crevices to restore the distressed redwood siding. And that's all before you can even begin to paint.

So they opted to hire a professional housepainter who could devote the time, patience and expertise required to revive the classical face of the old Marshall Mansion, built by blacksmith John Marshall in the early 1870s as a gift for his bride.

Goff and Engel are entrusting the most visible face of their house to Timothy Hilton of Earthtone Painting, largely because of the almost Zen-like approach he brings to restoring old homes.

"If you don't have a passion for this kind of work, you just can't get it done right. It will eat you alive," he said. "You have to dig down deep because you hit walls constantly. It's like a spiritual practice. The house is going to tell you what it wants to get and where it needs to get it."

And because the restoration of 227 North St. has become so high-profile, Hilton knows he's also got to please the eye of a town that's constantly watching.

Goff and Engel collaborated with Hilton to come up with just the right color — a soft and subtle gray with white trim.

"Even if you make the wrong choice in a primer color that people don't like, you're going to get a lot of heat and you feel it. People talk. It almost puts a cloud around what you're doing," said Hilton, who will paint the back of the house next year. "But I think they hit the mark on it and it's showing with positive feedback."

Although Goff and Engel are entrusting the $45,000 paint job to a professional, they disassembled and then reassembled the porch themselves, painstakingly stripping the old columns and preparing them for new paint. They also did a lot of the exterior trim restoration, from the skirting board near the foundation to the wooden gutters to the old decorative wooden corner treatments called quoins, which needed to be replaced after more than a century of sun damage.

<i>You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com.</i>